Capturing the Feel

Electronic Musician’s interview with iconoclastic producer and engineer Joe Barresi, who has worked his magic on acts such as Queens of the Stone Age, the Melvins, and Powerman 5000. He has a knack for capturing killer guitar sounds, and never loses sight of what makes music groove.
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Electronic Musician’s interview with iconoclastic producer and engineer Joe Barresi, who has worked his magic on acts such as Queens of the Stone Age, the Melvins, and Powerman 5000. He has a knack for capturing killer guitar sounds, and never loses sight of what makes music groove.

FIG.1: Barresi likes to use Focusrite's Red 3 compressor when tracking kickand snare.FIG.2: Barresi often sends a guitar signal through a splitter and routes itthrough up to six amps. He typically mics 4x12 cabinets using ShureSM57s and Sennheiser MD 421s, and routes the signals through vintageoutboard processors before going to themultitrack.FIG.3: When recording drums, Barresi sometimes uses a pair of figure-8 micsin a Blumlein configuration (angled 90 degrees apart) to get stereoroom sounds that emphasize the sides and rear.

When you first meet him, Joe Barresi seems like a laidback kind of guy. He doesn't say much — at least until you get toknow him — and when he does talk he's usually joking. It takes awhile to discover how serious he is about his work. An avid gearcollector who's especially known for getting great guitar sounds,Barresi sleeps, eats, and breathes recording. He's almost always in thestudio working. When he's not, he's either visiting friends who are inthe studio working, or he's home messing with guitars and gear. He hasa passion for vintage gear, and he peppers his conversation withreferences to classic albums and the people who made them. But he'salso a Pro Tools maven and a loyal supporter of numerous new-equipmentmanufacturers.

Barresi is a guitar player with a hard-rock background, yet he alsostudied classical guitar and music theory at the University of SouthFlorida and piano and music at the University of Miami. Even during hisschool years, he was constantly developing and recording bands on theside. After graduation he headed to Los Angeles, where he became afreelance assistant engineer and worked on a variety of musical genresat several major studios.

A demo he did with producer Garth Richardson was his first bigbreak; he went on to engineer for such well-respected producers asDavid Kahne, Michael Beinhorn, and Sylvia Massey Shivy. He's mixed forHole, Monster Magnet, Anthrax, and Skunk Anansie, among many others,and has branched out into production for bands including Loudermilk,L7, Tomahawk, and the Melvins. One notable project he worked on startedoff as demos but later turned into the self-titled debut album byQueens of the Stone Age.

I caught up with Barresi at Hollywood's venerable GrandmasterStudios, a favorite of such luminaries as the Foo Fighters, Tool, andBen Harper. He was there to engineer for new Arista artists The HighSpeed Scene. I arrived at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, an hour beforethe band was due, and squeezed my way around the vintage Neve 8028 deskinto the tiny, jam-packed control room where I spoke with Barresi.

How would you describe your style as a producer?

I like to augment what the band does. I don't like to say,“You're going to come in and do it my way,” or“You've got to use my '58 Les Paul.” It's true that I own astupid amount of outboard gear and guitars, but I like to at leaststart with the band's gear. I just finished working with a group fromthe East Coast who didn't want to bring anything out here with them. Itold them it was a must that they bring at least their guitars and ampheads. That's your sound, so start there. We might not end up using it,but I have to know what you sound like as a band.

What happens when you're producing and the band wants to go downa path that you know from experience won't work? Do you let them tryit?

No. That's time and money that could be spent in other ways, likegetting a better vocal performance. Don't get me wrong. I'm here tomake the band's record. I'm all for experimentation and creativity. Butthere are occasions when you have to steer the boat away from therocks.

On this project, you're engineering but not producing. Is thatdifficult after you've been a producer?

Actually, it's good to sit back and look out every once in a while,just absorb and see how somebody else would approach something. It— music and sound — is all subjective anyway.

You're using a combination of analog and digital?

After recording to analog 24-track we physically dumped all the drumtracks into [Digidesign] Pro Tools and I spent a day editing a fewsongs. The band also has a friend with Pro Tools, so we farmed a fewsongs out to a real “professional Tooler.” He used ProTools' Beat Detective, which allows you to chop bigger sections ofdrums so you still retain some naturalness. It quantizes like a drummachine, but you can retain some feel.

As a producer or engineer, do you find that you have to putthings “on the grid” because record companies — andthe public — expect to hear that kind of perfection?

Personally, I believe that music is about feeling, and that you getno feeling from music that's completely rhythmically accurate, unless,of course, it's straight, [programmed] “dance” music. Whenyou put on AC/DC it makes you want to rock, to get up and dance. Butit's not metrically cut, it's just solidly played. I think it's yourjob as a producer to get that kind of performance out of people.

[Laughs.] Back in the '80s, if you weren't able to performlike that, you'd be replaced. As — supposedly —[engineer-producer] Andy Johns said to the drummer in some band,“This would be a great record for you, just not a great recordwith you.” It's become politically incorrect to do that now. Soyou “Tool” it. And a lot of people rely on what they see onthe screen instead of listening.

[Engineer] Mark Dearnley, who's done four albums with AC/DC, oncedemonstrated something to me [on a piece of tape]. He said, “Whenyou have a kick drum that's this wide, and the bass player plays alittle behind and the guitar player plays a little ahead, you get thishuge downbeat.” Lately music is so lined up that it actuallyseems smaller. You get these little ticks for downbeats, instead of abig fat 30 ips hit. If something is blatantly out of time, that'sdifferent. But unless it's a dance-type song, music that's metricallyaccurate top to bottom doesn't really excite me.

That said, some bands need to be done that way. Powerman 5000 is aband that uses a lot of programming. That's their sound. But with them,I found it worked best to put the programmed scratch tracks down onthree sections of tape and have the drummer play to it three separatetimes. We picked the best overall performance, then maybe did somechopping and assembling in Pro Tools to tighten a few things up. Wecould have done just one drum take and fixed everything to a grid. ButI find you get more fills, more good stuff, and a little craziness thisway. You can chop the takes together and still retain somelive-performance feel.

I can't tell you how many control rooms I walk by and see theengineer's head in a screen all day long. When you start looking at thescreen, it's very easy to just use your eyes and forget about yourears. That's one thing good about a tape machine! The only thing youlook at on it is meter level. You aren't looking at kicks and snaresand timing. Nowadays, you can physically look at the waveform and say,“Okay, it's perfectly in time; it must be good.” And thatjustifies your job. Whereas if you actually made a decision to go witha certain take or style or feel and people said it sucked…

Then your taste would be in question.

Or your production skill, or your judgment. Phil Spector is stillknown for his wall of sound. He made the call: “This is what Ilike, this is what I'm going for.” You don't get much of thatanymore. There wasn't much exciting going on in mainstream radio untilthe White Stripes came out.

A lot of people have said that to me.

I'm not a huge fan because I hate bands without bass players. And Ithink a lot of it is hype: Are they married? Nice video, whatever. Butif you put that aside and listen, these guys are making records oneight tracks. There's a feel and a sound that you can't buy. And ifthey were produced by almost any of the producers out there right now,I guarantee the feel would have been Tooled right out of it: “Youcan't make a record on eight tracks, you need 96K and a huge computerrig.” I think it's a safety net for producers these days. Thatsaid, Pro Tools has definitely saved my ass in a few instances!

So it's a love-hate thing.

No, I love it. I just don't love what some people do with it. I wasup until 3 a.m. last night with an Mbox — the little two-channelDigidesign interface. That and my laptop and a FireWire drive —it's a portable studio. You've got to love being able to make music orcapture a moment anywhere, anytime, like that.

Who's a producer you've worked with lately, and what did youlearn doing it?

Last year I worked with David Kahne. The beauty of David iscommitment from day one. He makes the players commit, makes them playit again [instead of saving a take]. He'll use one overhead: You wantto hear toms? Hit the cymbals less and the toms harder. He brings thatdynamic back with players as opposed to separating out every freakingcymbal and tom. He also listens to music in an interesting way: by itsfrequency spectrum. He'll say, “It needs more high-endinformation,” and he'll add cymbals, or a guitar part that comesin high.

You're talking about having a point of view. Where did yours camefrom?

A combination of everything. There's no one really musical in myfamily, but both of my parents are good at singing melodies. They singto the radio or [laughs] Italian records. I started playingguitar when I was seven. I also studied as much theory as could. I'mnot a drummer, but I can play bass and I took piano lessons for awhile. When I moved out here [to Los Angeles] and got a job in astudio, I realized I didn't want to get pigeonholed into one sound orstyle. So I started freelancing at different rooms as an assistant. Theengineering aspect of my musical development came from working on somany different kinds of consoles with so many different kinds ofclients.

I also got exposed to gear by reading liner notes and listening torecords. “This record sounds insane, how did they do it?”Then finding out it was cut on a Helios console and buying some of thatstuff. And figuring out how to work guitars and amps and pedals andcreating sounds in my bedroom. You know: “Wow, this is whathappens when you turn the feedback knob up all the way on adelay!”

You prefer amps to plug-ins for guitar sounds.

I love some plug-ins, especially Echo Farm; so many different delaysin one plug-in is great. And Amp Farm, to me, is cool for stuff likedrums and distorting a vocal, but not as a substitute for a guitar amp.It's like Pod, which I like on vocals and loops. [Pod, Amp Farm, andEcho Farm are all Line 6 products.] All of those things are veryconvenient, but my job is not about convenience. Just because a pieceof gear is designed for one thing doesn't mean you're limited to usingit for that. Sometimes you can get distortion through a mic pre on theconsole, or an LA2A turned on the “full Canadian” setting— everything to the right.

Full Canadian?

[Laughs.] That's something I started adopting with GarthRichardson, who's Canadian. Extreme stuff got referred to as fullCanadian. An 1176 [Urei] with all the buttons in, or an LA2A with allthe knobs to the right; put them on an aux send and ship some vocals ordrums or bass to it, and then bring it back on a fader to add somefuzz.

What are some pieces of gear that you always have withyou?

If I'm tracking, the Focusrite Red 3 compressor just for kick andsnare [see Fig. 1]. I like the way it compresses on the way totape. If I need to, for guitars I'll use a bus to a Quad 8 EQ module onthe way to tape. Sometimes an API is good for that too. I've also got apair of SSL talkback compressors that Danny Buchanan at Henson Studiosbuilt for me.

For real, the compressor from a talkback circuit?

It's just a megalimiter. He bought the cards and put it in a box. Iused it on one room sound on this record. I also used a Shure Level Locon another room sound, and [an Empirical Labs] Distressor on a coupleof others. I consciously try to use different things. I might not bringany of this out for another two records. I might use something like anADR [Compex limiter].

There are definitely pieces of gear that have given certaincharacter to records. On the first Queens of the Stone Age project wehad a crazy old ADA digital delay. I used that for all the modulationeffects and delays because it crapped out really well and made allthese fuzzy sounds. I remember that piece of gear as being part of thesound of that record. The next time I worked at that studio, I didn'tuse it because I didn't want the same sound. I used a tape delay, or anEchoplex, or a flanger, and that became the theme. That's what I dowith amps, too. For the Matchbox Romance record I just finished, Ibrought out a Fender Tonemaster, which I haven't used in a year, and aSoldano. I brought down 20 different heads; we went through them andpicked the 4 or 5 that sounded best for the particular project. Andthat became part of the sound of the record.

I also work with a lot of smaller companies, like Rivera Amplifiers,which I love. Rivera's really into listening to what you have to sayabout their products. I got an extended 4×12 there, and asubwoofer system. They custom-tweak heads, and they solicit feedbackfrom people.

Are you still obsessed with stompboxes?

[Laughs.] Yes, Andrew Alekel, who works here, just turned meon to one made by Analog Man in New York. It's two compressors —an old Orange Squeezer and a Ross compressor built into one box. It'sreally amazing and it looks cool.

What's in the rack you brought for these sessions?

Coming here I knew there was enough Neve stuff, so I brought myTelefunken V76 preamps. If I want something to sound a little fatter,I'll go there. The Helios of course, just in case. Some Flickinger andQuad 8 EQ; I can use the Flickinger on anything. It sounds good ondrums, guitars, and vocals. It's based on an API but is completelysweepable. That's nice if you want to get into some surgery.

The Chandler EMI limiter I used on the drum room. The room heresounds great and I knew I wanted to compress it pretty heavily, whichthe Chandler is good for. I'm also using a box made by Geoff Tanner,who has a workshop here. It's a pair of Neve-like preamps with 3-bandEQ. The mid is selectable between 400 Hz and 3.5 kHz. And it has a¼-inch input on the front and a ¼-inch out in the back, whichis very cool. You can run it in front of a guitar amp if you want tobeef up the input to your amp.

Is the Pro Tools you're using an HD system?

Yes. But I did my last record on a Mix Plus system using 888s, andit sounded fine. It's more important to know how to get the best soundout of what you're working with. I mixed the first Queens of the StoneAge record on a Soundtracks console that I monitored through the wholetime I was tracking. If something sounded weird, I adjusted the mic orsource placement to compensate for what I was hearing through theconsole VCAs. It wasn't a purist signal path by any means, but then, Iwasn't making a Streisand record.

What mics do you use on guitars?

I keep going with Shure SM57s and Sennheiser MD 421s. Those are mymain two on 4×12s [see Fig. 2]. I love the way up-frontguitars sound with them. On a 4×12, I'll have two or three mics upon separate speakers and listen. If one sounds bad, I'll move toanother speaker or move the mic. I don't EQ the individual mics orcompress guitars; they're already compressed. You can just move the mica little and get the EQ that you need. Because there are phase issues,I generally stick with close mics, but sometimes I use just a RoyerR-122 set back a little bit.

On smaller, combo amps, I like to use a mic that has a little morepersonality, like the Royer R-122. Ribbons are so beautiful; theirdetail is amazing. I can get the Royer eight inches away, and it'sstill fat and natural sounding. Also, it's figure-8, so it picks upsome room; that helps give it perspective.

You use ribbon mics even on distorted guitars?

Yeah. [Producer] George Drakoulious and I worked with the Britishband Reef. The guitar player was very '70s sounding, very“Free-ish.” The whole sound was a Watkins amp with a V76preamp and a Royer ribbon mic. That was it. Of course, he was a greatplayer to start with.

How many amps do you usually have set up, and what do you use tosplit them?

I use a Systematic Systems guitar splitter; I'll use up to six amps.I mic them all up. I don't necessarily run all six at the same time.Sometimes I only use the mics on two or three, but I can blow six ampsinto the room if needed.

Ideally, I like to stick with three 4×12 half stacks, or twoheads and three cabinets, and run two cabs off one of the heads. I wantoptions, because you don't always know what you're getting. When a bandbrings in their gear off the road, the speakers can be shot. I bring inmine, but they're all different. For instance, tighter speakers workbetter for certain types of music.


A higher-watt speaker. A 75W or 100W Celestion will be a lot morefocused and tight on the low end than a 25W Celestion, which will soundmore loose, but is great for certain things, like solos, where you wantthe speaker to react more.

The lower-wattage speaker, which is getting pushed harder, vibratesmore, whereas a higher wattage speaker will barely move. So if yourclient's playing super, drop-tune, nu-metal chug riffs through ahigh-gain amp, you want the speaker to be tight and powerful and ableto handle the low frequency. That kind of material through a 25Wspeaker will sound floppy. Then there's the Celestion Vintage 30, ahybrid designed to distort like a 25W speaker that is more ahigh-wattage speaker.

Seems complicated.

You've got to understand where to start. I go back and listen torecords. Why does Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend sound like that? Certaineras had certain speakers: Fanes came in Hiwatts, Celestions inMarshalls, and Vox had their Bulldogs. They all had their sound.

And you mix and match.

I have a Sound City cabinet with Fane speakers, a Hiwatt cab with a75W Celestion — which is great for tight sounds — and someMarshall cabs with different speakers. I have them customized so I knowwhich character cab will do what with which amp — usually! Onthis last record I ended up using a Soldano and a 25W Celestioncabinet, which I thought would never sound great for tight rhythm, butit was amazing. Whatever works, right? On that particular project weended up using a combo of Marshall, Soldano, and Rivera.

Sounds like painting a picture.

I'm a guitar player. It keeps me going to work every day, I'll tellyou that.

Do you use room mics on guitars much?

Occasionally I'll blend in the room, compressed through thedifferent things I mentioned before.

Are your room mics in omni?

Sometimes, and sometimes in a figure-8 because you can notch outareas. Omni is good if the room is great. If there's a problematicarea, say near glass, I'd go cardioid to get rid of reflections fromthe rear, or figure-8 and turn it the other way [dead side toward theglass.] That's also good on drums. Or, you can use a pair of figure-8sin front of the drums in a Blumlein setup. That can sound amazing. Youcan pretty much notch out the drum kit and just get the sides and rearfor a very natural room sound and a great stereo spread [see Fig.3].


It's like XY recording using a pair of figure-8 microphones toreject the center and pick up the sides.

Where'd you learn that?

Reading books. I'm a big fan of the library and used bookstores forold audio books. My current favorite is Modern RecordingTechniques, published in 1970 when a modern compressor was a Pyelimiter. Also, when I worked with Mark Dearnley, he always got greatroom sounds using mic configurations like M-S and figure-8 pairs. M-Sis great because you can mess with it later. You set your figure-8 andcardioid level when recording, then when you're mixing you can mult thefigure-8 at the console, put one side of it out of phase, and add itback in for as much stereo as you want. It's cool, but not as naturalsounding as a Blumlein.

You don't see people doing those kinds of things much, they justthrow up any room mic. But there's a lot of information out there abouthow to do different things. You just have to look for it.

Parting thought?

Yeah. I ran Beat Detective on “Back in Black” the otherday, and I'm happy to tell you it speeds up in the choruses!

Maureen Droney,whose engineering credits include projectsfor Carlos Santana, George Benson, John Hiatt, Whitney Houston, andAretha Franklin, is the Los Angeles editor for Mix.


Matchbook Romance, Stories and Alibis (Epitaph, 2003);producer, engineer, mixer

Pennywise, Land of the Free? (Epitaph, 2001); producer,engineer, mixer

Powerman 5000, Transform (DreamWorks, 2003); producer,engineer

Queens of the Stone Age, Queens of the Stone Age (LooseGroove, 1998); coproducer, engineer, mixer

Rancid, “Fall Back Down” and “Start Now”from Indestructible (Warner Bros., 2003); mixer

Skunk Anansie, Stoosh (Epic, 1997); mixerTomahawk, MitGas (Ipecac, 2003); producer, engineer, mixer

Turbonegro, Scandinavian Leather (Burning Heart, 2003);mixer